When Brigid Hughes began her career as a 22-year-old intern at the Paris Review, she was told by George Plimpton that there were three things she’d need to learn in order to succeed at the job: how to play pool, how to drink scotch, and, lastly, the art of reading and editing.
“Those were the defining qualities of my time there,” she recalled to me recently, over lunch in a French café in Fort Greene close to her office—the converted carriage-house on a leafy side-street that is home to A Public Space, the Brooklyn-based literary journal she founded in 2006 and continues to edit. “I did learn to drink scotch. I did learn to play pool, poorly.”
As for the reading and editing, since those beginnings in 1995, Hughes has earned over two decades of experience in the field. She would spend nine years at the Paris Review, succeeding George Plimpton as its editor before starting her own publication. Now in its 12th year, the community around A Public Space has continued to grow as Hughes’ vision for it has evolved and expanded—into a fellowship for emerging writers, an academy of small craft classes (recent instructors include Gordon Lish and Francine Prose), and events, all largely run out of the magazine’s Dean Street headquarters. An independent imprint, A Public Space Books, will launch in early 2019.
Originally envisioned as an independent, print-driven magazine of literature and art, Hughes described her vision of A Public Space in its debut issue as “A literary forum for the stories behind the news, a fragment of an overheard conversation, a peek at the novel the person next to you on the subway is reading, the life you invent for the man in front of you at the supermarket checkout line.”
What Hughes articulates here is the way we experience place through narrative, and how our understanding of ourselves and our communities is shaped through the stories we tell about who we are, where we come from, and where we want to go. A city is a site of intersection, where individual voices, memories and histories collide—and so, too, in a way, is a literary journal. Like travel, or uprooting your life and moving to a foreign city, or holding a conversation with a perfect stranger, reading is a way of stretching oneself beyond the boundaries of everyday experience, and the writers Hughes champions are driven by the same mix of curiosity and empathy that these activities require. In A Public Space, literature is a landscape of possibility. Turn a corner, turn a page, and you can find yourself somewhere completely different. You take the risk that you might return changed, in order to have a new story to tell.
A Public Space has a strong history of showcasing international as well as local artists and authors—the first issue featured a portfolio of new Japanese fiction selected with the guidance of esteemed editor and translator Motoyuki Shibata, who was inspired by this collaboration to co-found the English-language anthology of Japanese literature, Monkey Business International. But though Hughes has always had a global outlook—and perhaps, because of this—she also captures something in the magazine that I, an Australian immigrant now living in Brooklyn, have always seen as unique to New York. Flipping through the pages of A Public Space creates that same potential for spontaneous encounter, and that electric charge of possibility, that first compelled me, like so many before, to cross oceans just to live inside that feeling. Between these pages, as in a vibrant neighborhood, different voices come together in dynamic dialogues. “I sometimes think about how Jane Jacobs talks about what makes a vital street,” Hughes said, when I asked how the city itself may have influenced the journal’s mission. “You don’t want homogeneity, you want a variety of buildings and shops and people. That’s what makes a vibrant and vital community, and I think of the magazine as something similar.”“I know virtually nothing about her life. I’ve been trying not to reach for a therapist metaphor, but it is a little bit like working with one of those therapists who you guess knows a good deal about you, has you sized up, but sits there quietly and every once in a while asks a question that you end up having to wrestle with.”
In person, Hughes is composed and soft-spoken, and chooses her words meaningfully. On the day we met, she was tall in black boots and elegantly dressed in layers of dark colors, except for the oversized gray scarf around her neck, which matched her eyes. Somehow managing to appear both graceful and unassuming, Hughes radiates the kind of quiet power that comes from giving careful attention, rather than seeking it. When I question whether it is ever difficult to maintain a consistent, unified aesthetic vision for A Public Space when the publication is so deeply committed to diversity and divergence, she insists, simply: “That is the vision.”
Sara Majka, whose debut collection of stories was published in a partnership between A Public Space and Graywolf Press, describes Hughes’ editorial process as enigmatic as her persona: “I’ve been working with her for ten years, but she has a funny process that is hard to put your finger on,” she said, via email. “None of it is about her or her ideas. She is very reluctant to place anything of herself on the work. In my memory she always speaks in questions. I know virtually nothing about her life. I’ve been trying not to reach for a therapist metaphor, but it is a little bit like working with one of those therapists who you guess knows a good deal about you, has you sized up, but sits there quietly and every once in a while asks a question that you end up having to wrestle with.”
Annie Coggan, an artist and architect who first had her illustrations featured by Hughes in the Paris Review and is now a regular contributor to A Public Space, agreed with Majka, though reached for a different image. “The thing about Brigid is you never pitch an idea to her. Ideas come through a chat,” she said. “We’ll have a conversation, she’ll say, What are you working on? and I’ll send her a picture, she’ll ask me a question about it, and then it snowballs. It’s always kind of formless. She’s an imagination catcher, like she’s got a butterfly net.”
Hughes was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, during a time of transition and economic decline, when the city was, as she described it, “changing its personality,” following the collapse of the local manufacturing industries. The daughter of a doctor and a nurse, she remembers a childhood “in a family of readers and a house full of books.”
Though Buffalo may have been a city built on steel, it also has a strong literary legacy. Donald Barthelme and Robert Creeley both taught at UB; alumnae include two of this country’s preeminent literary radio hosts—NPR’s Terry Gross, and Michael Silverbaltt of KCRW’s Bookworm, who will be honored with the inaugural Deborah Pease Prize when A Public Space hosts its first benefit gala next month.
But it wasn’t until Hughes was an English major at Northwestern that she discovered the world of literary magazines by perusing the pages of TriQuarterly in the university library: “I was always interested in reading but never quite understood what the options were for one to be a professional reader, or how to have a career that developed out of that.”
Back in New York as a recent graduate, she fell in love with the work at the Paris Review—reading submissions, witnessing how an editorial conversation could reveal something previously hidden in a writer’s story, the thrill of finding something promising in the slush pile and making space for this new work to emerge. Hughes learned editing as a tactile process that could transform a piece by reshaping it, and she practiced by assembling interviews on George Plimpton’s pool table at his home on 72nd street that, for decades, functioned as the magazine’s “clubhouse.” “There was a pool table up in his apartment, which is where he often did the editing of interviews,” recalled Hughes. “This was in the pre-computer era, so everything was done on paper. We would have pages and pages of manuscripts, and cut out and tape them together into what he called the snake. Seeing that process of how he would reshape a conversation was illuminating.”
I was curious about what it was like to navigate that space as a young woman working in her first job. (After all, it was only last year that the Paris Review’s fourth editor, Lorin Stein, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment against female staff and writers in the workplace, and he’d previously been touted as Plimpton’s natural heir and a “proud throwback.”) With the all the emphasis on drinking scotch and playing pool, did it ever feel like a Boys’ Club?Though Hughes herself appears reserved and is known, even by close friends, to be private, she is someone who inspires genuine trust in the writers she’s published.
“You know, I worked there with a number of extraordinary women,” Hughes said, going on to cite the many achievements of her contemporaries: Elissa Schappell co-founded Tin House; Anne Funewilder was recently named editor of Marie Claire; Dana Goodyear is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Gia Kourlas is the dance critic for The New York Times; novelists Elizabeth Gaffney, Fiona Maazel and journalist Eliza Griswold have all published books with major houses. “They shaped a great deal of my experience.”
Hughes is more forthcoming when it comes to speaking about the achievements of others than she is about her own successes, and most animated when it comes to talking about the writers she has nurtured. “She is very much in the mode of William Shawn in the idea that the editor should not be heard or seen, but should just get the best work and champion those writers,” said Allison Devers, the founder The Second Shelf, a London-based literary quarterly and bookstore dedicated to rare, antiquarian and rediscovered books by women, and a contributing editor of A Public Space. She noted that this stance was perhaps more productive for Shawn, who had a stable of celebrated male writers from the canon to promote his genius. Where humility can look generous on a man, it can render a woman invisible. In an industry where the hard work often goes unpaid or uncredited, a woman’s work can be overlooked or taken for granted if not actively, and vocally promoted.
Devers’ recent essay, “This Is How A Woman Is Erased From Her Job,” takes Hughes’ history at the Paris Review as an example of this. As Devers details, Hughes spent a formative period of her career at the publication, working her way up the masthead from intern to managing editor and succeeding Plimpton after his death in 2003, but her achievements there haven’t always been recognized. After the board abruptly terminated her contract, her name was stripped from the masthead, and her role as the magazine’s second editor—and only female editor until Emily Nemens replaced Stein earlier this year—was rarely acknowledged. Devers original tweets about this went viral, and her essay led to corrections in The New York Times, The New Yorker and a statement from the Paris Review that all editors, past and present, would be represented on the masthead in the future.
I was curious what Hughes made of this renewed interest in that period of her career, and why she thought the story had resonated with so many people. “We’re always going back and reassessing history,” Hughes responded. “What we missed, and what we might want to revisit from the past that looks different now. But for me, where I am and what I’m doing now—that’s what is most important.”
Questions around anonymity and erasure have guided Hughes in her direction of A Public Space, and she describes her editorial process as “always part sleuth, and definitely part persistence.” It was this dedicated sleuthing that led to the rediscovery of lost works by Bette Howland and Kathleen Collins, two writers who were first introduced to a new readership through the pages of A Public Space.
Collins had been a Civil Rights activist, playwright and filmmaker. When she died of breast cancer at the age of 46 in 1988, she left behind a trove of papers, including an unpublished manuscript of fiction. “I knew the stories were really good, but I also felt pretty confident that nobody would want to publish literary work by an unknown, dead, black woman,” her daughter, Nina Collins, told me. “It is really thanks to Brigid that my mother’s work has seen the light of day. Her excitement about it gave me the confidence to seek a publisher, and it went from there.” Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? the first collection of stories by Kathleen Collins was released through Ecco Press, a year after “Interiors,” appeared in A Public Space.
While Hughes had tracked down Nina Collins after watching a screening of her mother’s 1982 film Losing Ground, Howland’s work came into Hughes’ hands more serendipitously, while she was browsing through the second-hand books at a thrift store. Howland, who was 80 when she died in December last year, published three books between 1973 and 1984 and had been awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius grant. But by the time Hughes stumbled across her autobiographical novel, W-3, on the $1 cart at Housing Works in Manhattan, all of Howland’s works were out-of-print.
“I was curious because I hadn’t heard her name before, I hadn’t come across her work before, and I couldn’t find very much about her,” Hughes told me. “The less you can find, the more determined you are to seek it out.”Where humility can look generous on a man, it can render a woman invisible. In an industry where the hard work often goes unpaid or uncredited, a woman’s work can be overlooked or taken for granted if not actively, and vocally promoted.
Internet searches turned up little, but instead of being dissuaded, Hughes tracked down Howland’s son, who uncovered a safety deposit box full of unpublished manuscripts and letters, including a correspondence with Saul Bellow—Howland’s mentor, sometimes-lover, and long-time friend. A selection of these postcards were reproduced in Issue 23 of A Public Space in a portfolio of Howland’s work, along with an essay and several of her short stories, including “Blue in Chicago” and an excerpt from W-3. “We wanted to give a portrait of who this writer was—of her career, and how her interests and her friendships informed the writing,” said Hughes. “We were trying to piece together her life from the fragments we were able to find.”
It is Hughes’ interest in the broader context around an artist’s body of work—and of the textures of their life, and what insights might be gleaned by presenting a piece of fiction alongside the writer’s letters, photographs, or works in other mediums—that gives A Public Space its unique aesthetic: part literary archive, part treasure chest full of the papers and other ephemera that make up a creative life and often get left behind. When the publication was awarded the 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, the judges described it as “a cabinet of wonders,” and in her editorial direction, Hughes does seem to have something in common with an archivist, or a curator.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the selected stories of Bette Howland, will be launched in 2019 as the lead title of A Public Space Books. Coincidently, her experimental novel of the same name was first presented in TriQuarterly in 1999—the same journal that had first inspired Hughes to pursue a career as an editor. It seems just like one of the serendipitous connections that she seeks to foster, creating a resonance between artists across disciplines, generations, places and genres.
The independent books division follows a previous partnership with Graywolf Press, which brought Dorthe Nors novels to American readers for the first time, published books by John Haskell, Sara Majka and launched the career of Jamel Brinkley, whose debut collection of stories A Lucky Man was nominated for a National Book Award in 2018 and won the Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. “The writers working away from the mainstream are often the most exciting ones,” said Hughes. “I like to think that writers that are most interesting and have been most meaningful to the magazine are those who are kind of stubbornly true to their own vision.”
Kathleen Collins and Bette Howland were both featured in Issue 23 of A Public Space, alongside work by Rosalyn Drexler, Friederike Mayröcker and Martha King. The issue was inspired by Hughes’ chance encounters with a lost generation of women artists and came together as a way of thinking about those who had faded from view, like Howland, or, like Collins, had never been brought into the light to begin. “It wasn’t just that they were overlooked,” Hughes said. “It was a question of what a writer’s relationship to attention and anonymity—who seeks it, who avoids it.” The issue began with these words from Etel Adnan: “I’ve always had a few people who liked what I did, and that was enough… I do think I’ve kept my innocence.”
This is an idea that Hughes often returned to, and throughout our conversation, she spoke with admiration for those who have remained dedicated to the work above all, perusing their passions for love alone, indifferent to public recognition.
After speaking with Hughes, it is easy to see why she would have found a mentor in Deborah Pease, who is remembered as a poet and patron of the arts, lending generous support to Archipelago, the Poetry Society of America, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, and the Paris Review, which she published between 1982 and 1992. She was the founding benefactor of A Public Space and the first person Hughes called about her idea to start a new publication back in 2005, and in this way, Pease forms a connecting thread between the two major chapters of Hughes’ career. Although she formed many enduring friendships with writers and editors, Pease preferred to stay out of the public eye, often making her donations anonymously. “She was interested in the work,” said Hughes. “I think she was not interested in the public attention aspect, but she did have an enormous influence on a number of pillars of our literary community.”
The same, perhaps, could be said of Hughes. “She’s old-school New York because democratic work is still important to her,” said Annie Cogan-Crawford. “It’s not Brigid Hughes’ A Public Space, it’s A Public Space and we’re all a part of it. It’s a culture, and a family.”
Though Hughes herself appears reserved and is known, even by close friends, to be private, she is someone who inspires genuine trust in the writers she’s published. As Sara Majka said, “It may be a while until you hear from her again, but she never forgets you,” and this loyalty seems to go both ways.
In the magazine’s 12-year history, she has supported the early work of Yiyun Li, Nam Le, Amy Leach, Jesmyn Ward and Leslie Jamison, and the contributors I talked to spoke of Hughes with the kind devotion you give to someone who has given you permission to be yourself. The best testament of her influence and generosity can be found in the words of others, and so it seems fitting to end with a reflection from Leslie Jamison, whose first publication, a short story titled “Quiet Men,” appeared in the third issue A Public Space:
A Public Space was the first literary magazine that ever accepted my work, and I can still remember exactly where I was when I found out: sitting in my cubicle at a temp job I hated in Midtown, feeling very far away from being a writer in any sense of the word. Over the years, my appreciation of Brigid has only deepened—as a discerning editor, a champion of unheard voices, and an advocate for international and boundary-breaking writing—but in the bone-deep gratitude I feel for her, I’ll always be that 23-year-old in that cubicle, so stunned and thrilled that someone believed in what I’d done.